A police officer was caught on film punching a protester in the face during a rally against Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank on Saturday night in Tel Aviv. The protester was taken to Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv with a slight concussion, and required six stitches on his face.
A senior police official told Haaretz that the officer’s actions were unnecessary and extreme, despite the disruptions during the event, which took place in Rabin Square. They added that the officer in question would be dealt with.
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The injured protester, Gal, 22, told Haaretz that he had come to the demonstration with a few friends, and the incident occured in the southern part of the square at the end of the event, after the nearby road had been cleared.
“After most of the protesters were removed, we went toward the square itself and stood on the sidewalk a few meters from the road. All of a sudden a line of cops came in aggressively and tried to get us to go home," he said. "A few people were cursing at the police, tempers were rising and then all of a sudden this whole wall of police ran into us. They started pushing and I got hit in the face. It didn’t feel like a push. I had a slight concussion and for half an hour my memory wasn’t functioning.”
In response, the police said: “At the end of the protest in Tel Aviv, disturbances began ‒ road blocks and violent disruptions during which the police were attacked by the crowd and, as a result, the police had to disperse the rioters and make arrests using force.”
“If, during the demonstration, force was used at certain points that went beyond what was reasonable, this will be dealt with by those authorized to do so,” the police said, adding that “the police have allowed and will continue to allow any person to exercise their right to legally protest. But it will not allow disruptions and illegal and violent actions.”
Five protesters were arrested of the some 6,000 attendees on Saturday at the end of the demonstration, but they were all released during the night.
The police also attacked Haaretz photographer Tomer Appelbaum, who was present during the demonstration. They laid him on the ground while journalists and others called for him to be released. The police said that the officers on the scene had mistaken Appelbaum for a protester, and the incident would be looked into.
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After the police released Appelbaum, he said: “I tried to photograph the arrest of a civilian and then they decided to arrest me. One of them punched me, another one kneed me and pushed my head. I was only trying to photograph the arrest, and they jumped me.” The police also damaged Appelbaum’s equipment.
In response to the incident, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel said: “Even at the planning stages [of the protest] it was clear that the police were not happy about the very fact that the demonstration was going to take place and did everything it could to throw a spanner in the works.”
The association added that “the conduct of the police was unrestrained and it’s clear from documentation of the event that excessive force was used with no apparent reason, including toward passersby and even a press photographer. It’s difficult not to notice the increase in the number of violent incidents in which the police have been involved over the past few weeks and it’s difficult not to suspect that there is a connection to the spirit of the new commander.”
Minister of Communications Yoaz Hendel said on Sunday morning that the police should "learn lessons" from the incident.
"Journalists and press photographers are just doing their job when they cover demonstrations, even those directed against me and my opinions, this is what happens in a democracy," he wrote.
A number of Israeli politicians addressed the rally, and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders joined via video conference, expressing his support for the protesters and condemnation of Israel’s annexation plans. The senator said that he was “heartened” to see Arabs and Jews demonstrating together.
After initially telling organizers that they could not hold the protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's plan to annex parts of the West Bank, police said Friday that the demonstration would be allowed to proceed.